Event - Chef Competition Demo #2

Another lovely evening of friendly culinary competition was had on Thursday (July 26) at the Golden Foodie Awards' second chef competition demo at the impressive Subzero Wolf Showroom in Costa Mesa. This time, I got to have Duc along with me touting his beautiful D700 hunk of a camera so thank him for the majority of the following fabulous pictures. Two cameras clicking away between us meant that we snagged a multitude of action shots. Anyhow, all the delectable contributions were there again from the sponsors Sadie Rose Baking Company, Splenda, Melissa's Produce, Cabot Cheese, and La Crema which kept the crowd munching and happy.


This time around, the emcee for the evening was Fit Chef Katy Clark, Food Network Star Season 7, who was charismatic, entertaining, and overall very fun as a hostess. It also really helped this time as the chefs had mics on them so that they could talk while cooking. So which chefs were head-to-head? It was Chef Pascal Olhats of Pascal Restaurant and Brasserie Pascal and Chef Greg Daniels of Haven Gastropub and Taco Asylum. What seemed quite funny was that Chef Greg had actually studied under and worked for Chef Pascal at one point in time which Katy proved with an old picture of the two of them together! Since I sat in front of Chef Pascal, I got to hear his comments, and I loved how he said that if Chef Greg didn't win, he would have failed him as a teacher. The competition between the two was friendly and to last 60 minutes of cooking time using the ingredients provided by the sponsors (such as Jidori Chicken and Santa Monica Seafood) as well as a few ingredients they were allowed to bring with them. They would be under the scrutiny of 11 judges of whom I was one! I was happy to participate in this capacity, particularly because I was very excited about these two chefs.


So let's start with a little background on Chef Pascal Olhats. For one thing, I noticed that he was quite deliberate and wrote down notes at the start as well as during the competition. He had brought along his infamous wooden spice box carved from one piece of wood in Bali and filled with exotic spices including what I spied - Turkish saffron. Mmm. He seemed very proud of his treasure and I don't blame him. It was certainly a gorgeous piece. Unlike the previous competition, the two chefs brought sous chefs with them and the neat thing was that Chef Pascal brought Sue the sous! I was surprised that she was working so diligently beside him considering she had fractured a finger. That's dedication. Chef Pascal did a slight review of his culinary background for the audience which I have shortened for you: he started working at a local restaurant in France when he was 15, went to a restaurant school in Belgium, did some military time before working as a server (though he was always in kitchen) at a restaurant, and eventually came to California in 1984. One thing I love about people who are involved in food is that they are very giving people. He surprised the audience by saying that he had brought chicken crepes for them since they weren't judges; these were crepes with chicken, Gruyere cheese, and mushrooms which the lovely Tricia served to the crowd. Our thanks go to you Chef!


As for Chef Greg Daniels, he is from Whittier and started off in the food industry working at a KFC. After that spark, he studied at Cordon Bleu in Pasadena before working for Chef Pascal. He did a quick stint at Napa Rose before doing a variety of other positions (just about every!) in the restaurant industry. When his friends got in touch with him about working on opening a pub, Haven Gastropub was born. He also gave us a little hint as to his upcoming potential venues for other restaurants. The concepts sounded wonderful. I noticed that his style was generally more innovative and experimental, especially his usage of a handheld smoker gun. I didn't even know those things existed. His sous was Courtney who worked quite diligently at her tasks. Whereas Chef Pascal's secret ingredients laid in his spice box, Chef Greg brought some foie gras with him (what a treat!) to incorporate in his food. Nothing wrong with splurging a little right? A fun little thing that you'll see in some of my pictures is the plush frog he gave to Chef Pascal at the start of the competition since, well, French = frogs.


My apologies that a lot of our images were Chef Pascal-centric but it really depended on seating; we were right in front of this French culinary genius watching his every deliberate move. Not only was he whipping together such a variety of different dishes but he kept a jovial attitude and enjoyed being the subject of our constant cameras' clicking.


When the time finally came to a close, Chef Greg's dishes were the first ones presented. He actually didn't finish his third planned dish (they were all to be separate courses) which involved pan-fried chicken in seasoned flour but his other two were great. The first to come out was his rendition on the classic Southern dish of shrimp and grits. These grits, however, were the smoothest I've ever had and probably the fanciest with cream, smoked Serrano powder, and cheddar. They were topped with shrimp and smoked pineapple salsa (achieved with the smoker gun). To be very honest, though this dish was the star of the night amidst the judges, I was not the hugest fan because the back-of-throat spiciness from the grits' Serrano powder was not fully quelled by the citrus of the pineapple salsa which was tangy at the front of the bite and not at the end. I guess I had been hoping that the flavors would complement each other a little better instead of being slightly confusing. His second dish was fabulous though. It was a seared foie gras with blackberry panzanella salad. Who would have thought of this? The foie gras was nicely seared and paired well with the blackberry. As for the hardy bread from Sadie Rose which he had formed into crouton-like pieces, I thoroughly enjoyed the soft but crunchy textures.


Chef Pascal's offerings were on his very own rectangular plates because he had planned to take us on a journey through the countries. Let's start with Mexico which was represented with a subtle yet complex chicken soup full of tomato, haricot verts, cilantro, lemon juice, and lemon zest. This was spectacular as its flavor notes offered a zesty taste amongst a savory soup. Never underestimate the power of brilliant stock! I asked him afterward for some pointers on making good stock so I hope to experiment soon with these new tips in my head. Anyhow, then I moved on to taste my favorite part of this four-part plate which was the shrimp marinated with saffron and a citrus sauce; the fact that I had barely tasted lemon in the previous soup and then moved onto bites that incorporated bolder citrus flavors was well thought-out. The shrimp was cooked perfectly and the marinade playful in my mouth. Afterward, I had the chicken which had been coated with coriander and olive oil prior to being pounded flatter and covered in freshly grated peppercorn. This was coated with a sauce made with drippings and much heavy cream and topped with green onion that had been grilled and drizzled with hazelnut oil. Lastly, I had his gratin made of fingerling potatoes, freshly grated nutmeg, and white cheddar - wow. The cheese was very strong in this dish but worked! It was hearty, sharp, and (looked quite) easy to make. I like that homestyle cooking, and it was definitely captured in the plate we got to try.


What was the verdict at the end of an entertaining night? It had been interesting to see the chefs slowly working on their dishes and then flying around the kitchen in the last ten minutes. They and their sous chefs had put in so much work but unfortunately, a winner had to be declared. All the judges voiced their opinions over the mic (with the chefs out of the room), and I said that I appreciated subtlety in food a lot more...so I'll let you decide for whom I voted. Anyhow, the final result was a very close 6-5 in favor of Chef Greg so congratulations to you! I loved how you both accepted the outcome graciously and thank you both for taking pictures with me. My gratitude goes out to Tricia and Pam who worked to put all of this together as well. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to judge! It was a fun end to a fabulous foodie night to chat with the chefs a bit and take home some delicious bread. I'm looking forward to the Golden Dine-Out starting August 5th!

Photography by Duc Duong and Minerva Thai. More photos available on Facebook.